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Jerry Billing, Cliff Robertson, & a Spitfire

by Doug Rozendaal

(Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally appeared in World Airshow News)

Jerry Billing taxiies out in Z 5J, Cliff Robertson's famous Spitfire.....photo by Ray Whittemore

This is a story about 2 men and an airplane. All three are famous in their own right. Many stories have been written about each individually. Much more should be told here than I will ever know, and certainly more than I will ever be able to tell in the limited space we have here. The men are Jerry Billing and Cliff Robertson. The airplane is the Spitfire.

The Spitfire is what the Brits believe is the best fighter of W.W.II. ( The Yanks, of course, have a different opinion about that, something about a Mustang, I think) The Spitfire was the most famous of the British fighters and the most successful as well. They entered service early in the late 30's and were continuously improved through model changes until the end of the war. The Spit had 2 very distinctive features. The first was her Rolls Royce Merlin engine. This gives the Spit her unique sound. The second was her elliptical wing. This gives her a silhouette of her own. Despite the scarcity of the Spitfire, these two attributes make the Spitfire one of the most recognizable Warbirds flying.

The Spitfire in our story, MK923, is a special one. Of the roughly 12 left flying. This airplane was a participant in the D-day invasion at Normandy. Few of the Spits that remain have combat history and most flying today were manufactured from parts. After the War this airplane was sold to the Dutch and flew combat missions in the Dutch East Indies for a short while. Later the Belgian Air Force acquired the airplane and she served several roles until starring in a movie "The Longest Day" in 1961.

About this same time a young Yankee actor was in Britain to film another movie, "633 Squadron, Mosquito Bomber." This actor, Cliff Robertson, already an accomplished aviator and aviation enthusiast, learned that the Spit was for sale and purchased her. Cliff had the airplane disassembled and air freighted back to California. There the airplane resided as the guest of another well known aviator, Frank Tallman.

In 1972 the Spit was to be flown to Chicago for some major maintenance. This is where the third chap enters our story. Cliff found the most qualified Spit pilot he could to fly this mission. His name was Jerry Billing. To tell Jerry's story we must roll back time a bit.

Jerry Billing....photo by Ray Whittemore

Jerry Billing, a Canadian from Windsor Ontario left his homeland in 1941 and went off to Europe to defend England. Soon after he was assigned to #19 Squadron, Royal Air Force, the first to fly the Supermarine Spitfire. Jerry's resume reads like a war novel, two tours in W.W.II, RCAF Jet Formation Team, De Haviland Test Pilot, two time member of the Caterpillar Club, flew over Normandy on D-day, RAF Escape society, shot down three times, escaped, and has several aerial victories to his credit. The list goes on and on. That was 1942 this is 1996, You do the math...

Cliff Robertson is no stranger to the aviation community. He was the driving force behind obtaining Standard Airworthiness registration for the Tiger Moth. "It took over 10 years to do it." I could tell that Cliff was proud of that accomplishment. He should be. He owns, in addition to the Spitfire, a Stampe, a ME-108, a Grob Aster, and a B-58 Baron. All the airplanes are for fun except for the Baron which he uses to "fly out to La La Land, say the words, take the money and fly away like a thief in the night." Cliff makes it quite clear he has never lived in Los Angeles and never intends to.

Cliff tells about being interviewed one time. The interviewer asked if the biggest thrill in his life was winning and Emmy or and Oscar, Cliff replied, "Neither, it was going above 26,000 ft in a glider." The interviewer asked, "What?" "You would not understand." Cliff said.

Cliff told me "Jerry has more Spitfire time than any other human being alive." Jerry was a logical choice to fly the plane and right from the start was, "totally dedicated to the airplane. He won't let people move the airplane without gloves." This began their long relationship that has continued until now.

Jerry says, "Can you believe it, he just gave me this airplane for 22 1/2 years and let me do with it as I pleased. It's just been wonderful. It is such a graceful airplane, It won't stall or flick out like a Mustang." Jerry says that the Spit is a very docile airplane. Because of that you can, "Do an airshow and stay on stage at all times." But the best part for Jerry has been the people, "The people just love the airplane, It is living history you know."

Jerry decided that last year would be his last. In a note, Jerry wrote, "After 23 1/2 years flying low level airshows in Cliff's Spit, and 52 1/2 years flying Spitfires I believe it's a good time to leave the airplane in one piece." I asked Jerry if he would continue flying, "I intend to fly as long as can get in the Champ. It is parked outside the back door. I don't have to call the tower and I don't need a clearance from anybody." But, as for the Spit, "It is just time, I think we done pretty good, eh." I do too.

Cliff told me the decision to hang it up was "All Jerry's." Because Jerry has decided to retire, Cliff has reluctantly decided that if the right offer is made, he would be willing to part with the plane. Her new home will be carefully chosen. Cliff says, "I am not going to sell it to some playboy who will go out and prang it." Till she is sold the Spit will remain at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo where it has been displayed for several years.

Many of us would be sad or depressed about hanging up the headset and others might wait one season too long instead of retiring one season early. Jerry focuses only on how fortunate he has been to have flown such a great airplane, for such a great guy, for so long. It says volumes about him.

Jerry has written a book, "Knight among Knaves in Their Spitfires." It is about his life the War and flying the spits. In the book Jerry writes, "I would not give 20 minutes flying aerobatics in a Spitfire for 10,000 hours flying an airliner."

In 1988 Jerry was made an "Honourary citizen of France" and in 1995 he was Knighted by the President of France for his contributions to that country during the Second World War.

I have never been a gambler, but I would bet real long odds that in the year 2040 there will not be any 70 year old Gulf War veterans flying airshows in civilian F-16's or Stealth Fighters. Any takers?

 

This material is the property of the author or the publisher.  Any reproduction without the written permission of the author or the publisher is forbidden.

Click to go to  a website devoted to Jerry Billing

 

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